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The whole world is an island

Projects carried out in universities break the isolation of riverside communities in Pará, bringing development by means of electricity and cell phone signal. The first results have already started to appear

Camila Guimarães

Translated by Silvia Benchimol, Ewerton Branco, M. Annarry Tavares (UFPA/ET-Multi)


If you are reading this article in the printed newspaper, under the light of a lamp, or in the digital version, on a computer screen, you are not part of the more than one million people in the Legal Amazon (1,154,916, in exact numbers) who do not have any access to electricity, according to data from the Ministry of Mines and Energy. In Pará, data shows that 709,196 people live under these conditions. To tackle the problem, a project proposed by the Federal University of Pará (UFPA) has been a real ‘light at the end of the tunnel’, providing clean energy to riverside communities near Belém.

For at least six years, the project of “Grupo de Estudos e Desenvolvimento de Alternativas Energéticas” (Gedae) [Group of Study and Development of Energy Alternatives] at UFPA has been working on the capture, storage and distribution of photovoltaic energy on “Ilha das Onças”, a location that belongs to the municipality of Barcarena, in the Northeast of Pará state, and about 30 minutes from the capital by river.
Most of the approximately 30,000 families living there do not have any access to electricity via public distribution system, and depend on private solutions to obtain energy, such as the use of diesel or gasoline generators. In addition to being expensive, these resources are polluters and can affect local biodiversity.

João Alves de Araújo, 58 years old, resident on Ilha das Onça, reinforces this scenario. He is the first beneficiary of the project. João, who has lived in the area for most of his life, with his wife and four children, remembers how difficult daily life was before having access to solar energy: "I'm from the time the only light here was the oil lamp. It was difficult, because we needed energy, but we could only keep the generator running from 6pm to 9pm. It wasn't possible to keep a refrigerator on like that, food spoiled", he says.

Most of the approximately 30,000 families living there do not have any access to electricity via public distribution system
Most of the approximately 30,000 families living there do not have any access to electricity via public distribution system (GedaeItecUFPA)

The resident says it was very difficult to bear the expenses of a generator considering the families income, because the equipment consumed around two liters of diesel oil per day, totaling a cost of approximately 400 reais per month. "There was still the cost for ice, which we had to buy at 10 reais a bag to keep the açaí for another day. If you do the math, at the end of the month, it wouldn't be possible to keep it", says João.

According to Professor Wilson Negrão, member of Gedae and coordinator of the Photovoltaic Systems Laboratory at the Institute of Technology (Itec) at UFPA, it was the perception of this reality that motivated the team to go beyond the university walls. Based on the concept of energy justice, which assesses inequalities in the distribution of energy and the impacts of its generation, the researchers sought alternatives to provide electrical energy in the region in a way that provided better cost-benefit for communities and the environment, as he explains:
"(On Ilha das Onças) they didn't have energy. They usually had generators on for three or four hours a day, at most, and spent a large part of their income to pay fuel costs. Then, the first stage was planned to go beyond the university, in 2017, and bring this concept of ‘energy justice’ to these families, so they can develop and grow too", he comments.

In practice, Wilson says that the group began to implement a photovoltaic energy generation system that operates in a modular way, with systems that are connected to allow energy to be shared. It started with just one generator system, in João Alves' house. Now, it already covers a 500-meter-long network, interconnecting 12 buildings, in addition to a local church.

Extra income

"Our situation here has improved a lot. Today, my wife sells “chopp” [popsicle], prepares ice cream to sell. We can also store and sell fruit pulp. In other words, extra income thanks to energy, every house has a little shop", says John.
According to the resident, the community already has eight refrigerators in good condition, and in every house, there are fans and various other electronic devices to make daily life easier. "Before, we slept in the dark and in the heat. And there were still a lot of bat attacks, because of the dark. Not anymore", celebrates João.

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According to Professor Wilson Negrão, member of Gedae and coordinator of the Photovoltaic Systems Laboratory at the Institute of Technology (Itec) at UFPA, it was the perception of this reality that motivated the team to go beyond the university walls (GedaeItecUFPA)

Project seeks partnerships for electric boats

From a technical point of view, Professor Wilson Negrão highlights that the distinguishing feature of implemented system is that it operates on direct current which, unlike the alternating current (of the conventional electrical system) is capable of operating with fewer failures and a great capacity for integration into the photovoltaic system.

"With the system, which has already proven to be very robust, it is possible for residents to use energy for practically everything: lighting, ventilation, water pumping, sockets, refrigeration, etc. Including açaí blending machines, which was more or less developed by ourselves: we studied conventional machines and, from that, we made a motor that could operate on direct current and now they can even blend açaí using solar energy", says the professor.

In addition to revolutionizing everyday life in homes, the project also hopes to transform the way riverside residents move between the islands, through the creation of engines powered by solar energy. The subject is of great interest to residents like João Alves, who works in passenger transport.

“Rabetas” are small boats often used by riverine people for rapid moving along rivers. They are commonly powered either by gasoline or diesel engine, which pollute the environment during use and also during the maintenance process, releasing quantities of oil into rivers. With the boat powered by photovoltaic electricity, this environmental and financial cost would be eliminated.

According to Professor Wilson, there is already a “rabeta” running on solar energy. The electrical system in the locality has a recharging station for the boat, operating in parallel with the household network: when the “rabeta” is not being used, this recharging station powers the equipment that supplies the households' demands, so there is no waste or underutilization of resources.

There is an expectation that the project will have five more sustainable “rabetas”, but this innovation depends on investments that have not yet been achieved. "The problem is that this engine is not found in Brazil and there is a lot of bureaucracy to purchase it through the project. If I bought it apart from the project, for example, a five-kilowatt engine would cost around R$ 15 thousand. But we hope to get support to purchase it in the future. It's a worthwhile project that pays for itself for several reasons", guarantees the professor.

Professor points out challenges to the expansion of the initiative

The success of the project and the direct benefits to the residents benefitted by the photovoltaic system have made other residents of Ilha das Onças want to be part of it. Mr. João comments that the neighbors living in houses that are not yet part of the network hope the initiative will grow so that they can also be benefited by it.

"There is still a big demand, a lot of people who need this in the neighborhood", says João. "They want to know how it works. Although we explain it, some of them end up thinking they are being neglected. But it doesn't depend on us, it depends on the government, and they do not always approve the projects".

Even for reaching the stage it is at now, as Professor Wilson explains, the project had to overcome limitations regarding the difficulty in accessing resources: “The community helps. A good part of the equipment came from them. During some stages, we came in with the modules and they came in with controllers and batteries; other times, we came in with circuit breakers and they came in with modules, and that’s how we kept the development going”, says Wilson.

In addition to being beneficial for the community, the initiative has also worked as a great real-life laboratory for students at the UFPA Institute of Technology. They are constantly involving themselves and learning more, while helping to improve the lives of people living on Ilha das Onças.

"The entire system implemented on the island is monitored by the project, and the students actively participate, installing and maintaining the network. It is a large experimental laboratory, teaching many people the expertise of developing and installing a system to be used by isolated communities."

Project aims to end the lack of cellphone signal on the islands

Another challenge for those who live on the Amazonian islands is the lack of cellphone signal, which leaves many locations incommunicable and with restricted access to information, making daily life difficult for the population. Though it is not just the isolated communities (far from urban centers) that experience this problem. According to a study that began within the scope of the Centro Universitário do Pará (Cesupa), even islands close to the Metropolitan Region of Belém (RMB), such as Ilha das Onças, Cotijuba and Combu, face the same difficulty. A project, the result of Zenith Inova, a startup incubated by Cesupa, took the initiative to try to reverse this reality.

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The businessman explains that operators use a satellite system to locate points on the earth where it is possible to install telephone antennas (Zenith Inova)

Enabling the implementation of telephone networks on the islands of the region is the goal of AmazOmnia, the only project from Pará to be selected to participate in the area of Information and Communication Technology by Programa Nacional Sinapse da Bioeconomia [Bioeconomy Synapse National Program], which promotes innovative ventures within the Brazilian Amazon. The initiative is in its testing stage, and aims to begin changing reality on the islands through communication.

The executive director of Zenith Inova, Gabriel Marcelino, explains that the idea came about after observing the precariousness of the mobile data infrastructure on islands close to the RMB. During the visits, it was possible to observe that boatmen from Ilha das Onças, for example, needed to cross the river to Belém to talk on the phone. Given this, a group of researchers sought to understand this difficulty in the region.

“We collected data from Anatel and saw that a large part of the region does not have a signal or 2G, which is the least required connection for calls. We started traveling around some islands close to RMB, which were expected to be receiving signal but weren't, and talked to locals. According to the telephone companies, when contacted, the justification was that the islands did not have an optimal spot where to implement an antenna, so they did not receive a signal”, says Gabriel.

The businessman explains that operators use a satellite system to locate points on the earth where it is possible to install telephone antennas. However, due to the dense forest in several parts of the region, the system was unable to locate a suitable point. It was then that the project came up with the solution:

“The idea is that, using drones to carry out this mapping, we locate the best point for companies to install the signal antenna, facilitating this process for operators to offer the service to communities. We use heat map data that indicates positions where there is no internet signal from operators”, explains the CEO.


In one year of operation, AmazOmnia has already carried out surveys on three islands in the region – Ilha das Onças, Cotijuba and Combu – and is in the research analysis and testing stage. “What we are seeing now is our impact indicators, we are evaluating the market possibilities so that these companies will recognize the potential in these regions”, says Gabriel.

For the executive director, one of the great benefits of having cellphone connection on the islands will be easier communication with and between the residents, but it won’t be the only one. “With companies operating there, schools will have access to better quality internet, not just via satellite, which has very weak signal. Furthermore, business owners will be able to operate more easily if they have internet connection. A restaurant in Combu, for example, was unable to use credit card machines as it should, especially during peak hours. This is a loss that can be reversed”, he concludes.